A balmy, tropical wind drives a light drizzle and that is all it takes to disrupt traffic in the borough of Manhattan, which seems to be perpetually teetering toward chaos on its good days. To make matters worse, it is not only raining, but a parade is pending, with pageants, floats and a lot of city streets blocked. This is not just any parade but one to honor the first of many Europeans to invade this continent. Yes, they still celebrate Columbus Day here.
We are inching along in a cab smack dab on Wall Street, the heart of the “free market” of the free world, a block or two from the New York Stock Exchange.
We’ve got about a day to kill and so we heading to the Guggenheim. After crawling along past 1 World Trade Center, Jahangir, our driver, explains that he will have to take FDR Drive to get uptown. We will essentially circumnavigate the island via this route. With the weather and the impending festivities shutting down the middle of town, it’s our safest bet, he assures us.
We had absolutely no intention of being here at all on this day. Our plan was to circumnavigate not this tiny island but the globe.
Our itinerary had us in Portugal for a week’s vacation before moving on to Hong Kong for a conference. And, after a week there, we’d harness the tail winds of the jet stream once more to land back home in the Golden State.
But, unbeknownst to us until we arrived at JFK the night before, our proverbial parade was rained upon as well. While preparing to board a red-eye flight to cross “The Pond,” one of our passports was deemed unacceptable. To be sure, it was valid. In fact, it was valid for another six weeks. But that is not good enough for República de Portugal, where your travel documents must not expire for three months after you have bid their fair land “adieu.” Three months after.
One of us did not qualify under this strange requirement, and it was the traveler with Canadian citizenship. Surely the Portuguese know full well that Canadians are much too polite to do anything so uncivil as overstay their welcome, especially by such an inordinate amount of time. But no such luck.
Apparently the airline could only tell us this bad passport news in person and just minutes before departure. This minor detail could only be conveyed at the gate and only after we had spent six hours flying across the U.S. to get here. Never mind that all our passport information had been logged in to the airline database weeks ago. I know. I put it there.
After hours of failed negotiations and pleas with the gate personnel, who, of course, were just doing their jobs and had no authority whatsoever, we came to the cold realization that we had as much chance reaching Portugal as Columbus did landing in India. We watched the plane take off. And as the graveyard shift workers at JFK began polishing the floors and taking out the trash, we began a search for a place to sleep.
Cell phones in hand, we dialed and clicked to find a room. The entire East Coast, apparently, was at 100% occupancy, except for a flea bag hotel on Wall Street. And it was there that we arrived via Uber at 1:30 a.m. only to learn once again how the world of e-commerce does not synchronize properly with the physical realm because the online booking system we used to secure our room did not agree with the information Monique, the hotel night clerk, had in her system.
Our first hurdle was convincing Monique that we were checking in for the previous night and not the night to follow in about 20 hours. She finally understood this distinction but we were not done. She still could not give us the room until she sorted out a discrepency in the booking rate. We were quoted online a price of $426. But she couldn’t give it to us for that rate because she didn’t have a certain code. She would not let us have the room for a penny more than $208. We weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry at this point.
We redialed our cell phone to the online booking person and handed Monique our personal phone to sort this out. In the end, she found the code and we graciously gave in to her terms for the cheaper price.
We trudged to our sleeping quarters which were conveniently located so close to the elevator we could open our hotel room door without leaving the elevator itself. To be fair, we found no fleas in the room, only a lonely cockroach and a very mysterious red stain on the carpet.
Also, our door did not completely close, but we figured that was a feature, in the event we needed a rapid escape.
After three or four hours of very restless sleep, I crawled out of bed and found myself in the lobby foraging for caffeine.
As I carried two cups of coffee onto the elevator for what I certainly hoped would be my last ascent in this establishment, I was greeted by a middle-aged woman with a thick southern drawl. She struck up a pleasant conversation with me, at least I think she did from what I could understand through her accent.
The elevator doors opened and a family with an Eastern European accent tried asking whether we were going up or down. We pointed up. They were going down. The doors closed and my friend from the South remarked under her breath but conveniently audible enough for me to hear that some of these visitors to our country should “learn to speak our language.”
She smiled at me as though she and I had a connection regarding this opinion. I smiled back because I was thinking that she and I didn’t even speak the same language. And I was calculating all the time I had spent learning Portuguese for nothin’.
And so this is how we find ourselves, jittery from too much coffee, sleep deprived, jet-lagged and in a cab in New York City with a day to fill before rerouting our trip to Hong Kong.
Our cab driver, whose name is Jahangir, is a friendly fellow, although a bit hard to understand.
He asks us where we are from. I say “near San Francisco.” I ask of his origins, and he points across the East River and says “over there.” But he laughs, explaining that “over there” has been his home for the past 20 years and he is a transplant from Sri Lanka.
I ask how he got here and the story is as old his adopted country. He knew someone who had a place to stay. He journeyed to the Promised Land and took any job he could find, working in restaurant kitchens, etc. And just as I am conjuring a vision of how he has spent the past two decades inching up the economic ladder of free commerce to the coveted role of taxi driver, he hastens to add that cabbing is just a sideline, not his primary source of revenue.
Jahangir’s full-time gig is a business he and four partners run in his homeland.
Naturally, I again jump to a conclusion of what that must mean. This endeavor must involve the importation of goods manufactured by cheap labor, maybe shirts hand-stiched by under-paid sweat-shop workers and sold in a Target or a WalMart.
Not at all, he politely explains. He and a partner run a 14-person data processing business.
What kind of data are they processing?
He points to the skyscrapers out our windows. From the banks, he explains. And what kind of bank data? Mortgage foreclosures. You know, the kind that were at the heart of the subprime-derivatives housing crash that just about sank the entire world economy a decade ago.
Welcome to the wonderful world of business without borders, where information flows at the speed of light, while geopolitical boundaries are still in the dark ages, regulated via little pieces of paper in books, books that may or may not be valid.
“I’ve never been to the Guggenheim,” Jahangir notes. “Do they have art from around the world?”
I respond affirmatively, though at this moment, I can only remember the names of Kandinsky, Chagall, Picasso whom I know are on exhibit. All Europeans and hardly representative of the entire world of art.
Jahangir is all New York when it comes to taxi driving. He is tailgating, swearing at the other drivers, and texting, all while turning around to talk to us. He asks when our flight to the airport will be. He graciously offers to take us there and proceeds to pull out a piece of paper and write down his phone number. We can call him anytime, he notes.
We smile and accept the paper. If we make it out of this cab alive, we may kiss the ground, but we will not be calling Jahangir for any future excursions.
He exits FDR at 96th only to be greeted by a police roadblock. The parade is under way. Sirens blast past us as a van with the Italian flag whizzes by. Maybe it’s the Mayor of Genoa here on behalf of their famous son.
Jahangir tries a sidestreet but police lights are making it clear this won’t be easy. He is not discouraged. He turns the meter off to give us a break on the fare and we traverse paved surfaces that may or not be meant for motorized vehicles until we pop out across from the Guggenheim. Columbus should have had this guy for a navigator.
The Guggenheim line is around the block and the precipitation has turned from drizzle to downpour. We have no umbrella so we duck into a little pizzeria seeking shelter from the storm.
Since we’re here, we order a classic Margherita pizza and two glasses of chianti. Afterall, when in Rome, especially on this day, do as the Romans, except for speaking their native language. None of the staff are speaking Italian, either, only Spanish.
And it dawns on us that right about now we should be in Lisbon checking into our AirBnB and maybe sipping a glass of vinho verde.
But this will do. It will have to do.
Habla português? Anybody?